As published writers, we stumble in the dark, attempting to measure how our books are selling in the present time. We feel sharp corners and say, "Ouch, I guess things aren’t going that well." Or feel plush fabric and sit in that luxury for a while. Then six months later, the lights come on and we realize that the things that we had been feeling were nothing like the reality before us.
Yet we still play the game and do the drill. Yes, I’m talking about frequenting our local bookstores and counting how much stock has turned over (some bookstores even have dates on their bar code stickers stating when the books were ordered). We use our cell phones to call Ingram’s, one of the larger book distributors, to find out how many our books have been ordered. (For the uninitiated, the number is 615-213-6803. A caveat–this only represents a portion of your sales and does not include books shipped directly by your publisher to stores or other distributors.) And the worst yet, we check our rankings on Amazon.com on a regular basis and depending on your neurosis factor, this could mean weekly, daily, or hourly.
Now I know most of us are lost causes, but I’m writing this for the benefit of our brothers and sisters who will soon be seeing their mystery titles in print. Regarding the biggest offense, Amazon slumming–all I can say is, don’t do it. Yes, your heart will soar as your ranking edges to the low four figures for a hot second, but it will also sink as the numbers for your precious child falls to 150,000 or worse. Still don’t believe me? Here are three quick reasons not to.
1) Amazon sales are most likely only a very small percentage of your total sales. We’ve heard this time and time again, especially from bestselling authors. Last year Lynn Viehl of Paperback Writer kindly e-mailed me her sales data for her USA Today bestselling mass paperback book, IF ANGELS BURN. She was surprised that her Amazon and BN.com sales figures were so low, in spite of ranking in the top 500-1,000 sales of BN.com and 2,000-5,000 on Amazon.com. Between the two of them, during a brief time span, she reported that she had sold less than a hundred copies total. (Actually, it looked to me that she had sold almost 300 copies–but then accounting is not my thing!) For bestsellers, it’s the stats from Walmart, Costco, Target, and the chains that separate the Big Boys/Girls from the rest.
And because each book may be sold a little differently, this percentage cannot be standardized. Some authors may do their best selling though brick-and-mortar independent bookstores. Many presses, both small and big, are also discovering that they need to go where people already congregate–churches, craft shows, etc.–and sell books there. Those sales will not be reflected in an Amazon ranking.
2) The ranking system is the mathematically equivalent of gobbledygook. Now, I say this because I’m not a numbers person as I indicated before. Most authors I know are also similarly mathematically challenged. There are, however, folks and academicians who really groove on numbers. Morris Rosenthal, the publisher of Foner Books, is one of them and has launched a new blog, The Rank Economy. He also is the author of What Amazon Sales Ranks Mean. It’s an amazing document, which includes a graph and, needless to say, a bunch of numbers.
I can only add to the confusion by offering my real world example–GREEN MAKERS, a very specialized nonfiction book that I edited and produced for a professional organization. After the book was officially released in April 2001, I placed the book on Amazon.com through the Amazon Advantage program. I’m the book’s official contact, so when orders come in for the book, I am directly e-mailed. I must then ensure that books are mailed to Amazon’s distribution center in Kentucky; all mailing costs to the distribution center must be absorbed by the publisher. (For a small press like ours, hardly any inventory is kept in the warehouse.)
First of all, some fast facts:
Publisher: Southern California Gardeners’ Federation
Pub Date: 2001
Print Run: 4,000
Printing Costs Per Copy: $3
Retail Price: $19.95
Wholesale Discounted Price: $12 (40% Discount)
Amazon Discounted Price: $8.98 (55% Discount)
Out of the 4,000 copies, 2,000 were given away to the membership of the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation. More than 1,000 have been sold so far. A bulk of the sales were made directly by the Federation through direct mail solicitations, press releases, and book events. Other than the Federation itself, the book is still being sold by one brick and mortar outlet, one direct mail/special events outlet, and Amazon.com. Since joining Amazon in 2001, we have sold a total of 78 books.
Just for our readers at Murderati, I followed the Amazon.com rankings for this very humble book for the past week:
Sunday (May 21) 202,709
Monday (May 22) 247,785
Tuesday (May 23) 404,535
Wednesday (May 24) 427,460 (later 71,862)*
Thursday (May 25) 130,022 (later 202,455)*
Friday (May 26) 230,864 (later 257,346)*
Saturday (May 27) 325,134 (later 366,433)
Sunday (May 28) 374,337 (later 414,163)*
Monday (May 29) 470,316 (later 473,093)*
Tuesday (May 30) 487,774
* Apparently the number changes throughout the day.
So what accounts for the spike in the number on Wednesday, you ask? Let’s look at our order report for the past year, organized by most recent date of order received:
April 10, 2006–5 books
February 27, 2006–6 books
November 14, 2005–3 books
October 31, 2005–1 book
October 24, 2005–4 books
August 8, 2005–2 books
August 1, 2005–1 book
So that’s it. No orders since April 10–yet our numbers have yoyo-ed from 71,862 to 487,774 during this past week. (I can only attribute the spike to a used book sale–which I’m not informed of, since the book would come from another party and not the publisher.)
So why are we hooked into Amazon, as if it can foretell our literary futures?
I’m not saying that the Amazon ranking is not some measure of success. Surely if you consistently rank from #1-#100, you are undeniably a bestseller. Yesterday this list included Patricia Cornwell, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Jeffrey Deaver, Alexander McCall Smith, John Sandford, Harlan Coben, and Mary Higgins Clark. No surprise.
If you are regularly in the 1,000 or less category, you share company with Jonathan Kellerman, Tami Hoag, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Sue Grafton, and others. In "What Amazon Sales Ranks Mean," Rosenthal says, "Books with steady sales ranks below 1,000 are selling very well, topping several dozen copies a day as you approach 100."
But most of us are on the yo-yo track, where darkness unfortunately prevails.
3) And if your ranking is bad one day, so what? What are you going to do to remedy the situation that day? Walk down your street wearing a sandwich board advertising your book? Flog yourself until you bleed? Buy some books on Amazon yourself?
Ultimately the numbers that really count are those on your royalty statement, which is received only two times a year. Some editors are more open about numbers than others, so you may be able to get more regular reports about print runs, etc. outside of royalty reporting times. This information can be helpful. Even though my tendency is to be in dreamland about money matters, I’ve discovered that I need to do periodic evaluations based on hard numbers and quantifying past results. If we have poor sales, we need to attempt to figure out why. Is it what we’re writing about? Or perhaps our writing itself? Has it been the way our books are been promoted? Is it just the whims of the market? And if we feel impassioned to continue down the same writing path, we must be realistic and seek other financial ways to support our work.
I don’t think our Amazon ranking is going to help us in any real way in getting these answers. But I know that we are so starved for information about sales of our book that we grasp onto any little morsel–even one that may be rotten–and take it in.
In due time, the Mystery Writers of America will be offering a BookScan service for their members (the contract is currently being negotiating). This service will be limited, however, to the top 100 mystery books. Even though most of us won’t fall into the category, odds are that many will join and soon we’ll have new numbers that we can obsess over. Even though Bookscan figures don’t encompass all sales either, at least they will be hard numbers and not elusive ones that will change with the click of a button.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER SPAM: Nellie Estrada of Chino Hills describes how she ate Spam as a kid–"fried and rolled into a hot corn tortilla with a bite of a serrano chili and some salsa." Muy deliciosa! Okay, gang, you have less than 24 hours to submit your entries to the inaugural Mas Arai Spam Contest. Judges will be myself and Mas, with Haruo as our tiebreaker. E-mail them to The winner will be announced this Saturday at my event at Book’em Mysteries in South Pasadena at 2 p.m. and posted next Wednesday here on Murderati and my website.
FREE TRIP TO JAPAN, ANYONE?: From the pages of Poets and Writers–Five five-month residencies, which include a monthly stipend of 400,000 yen (approximately $3,450) for living expenses, plus expenses for housing, transportation, and language study, are available to U.S. artists to live in Japan. Check out the website, www.jusfc.gov/commissn/guide.html.
Update! ADDING TO THE MADNESS: Just opened up an e-mail from Amazon. We received one order of GREEN MAKERS last night about 10 p.m. PST. Apparently that order helped to lower our 487,000 number to 127,910. Now we’re at 231,077 (3:14 p.m. Wednesday). What does this mean? Not a whole heck of a lot.